——What is WiMAX?
WiMAX is short for World Interoperability for Microwave Access and is a term that has been coined to describe a standard for broadband wireless access. It comes in multiple fl avors, fi xed and mobile WiMAX, both based on industry standards created by organizations like the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute), specifi cally the IEEE’s 802.16, as well as ETSI’s equivalent called HiperMAN which are wireless MAN (Metropolitan Area Networks) standards that are designed to deliver high throughput broadband wireless access. These are standards that provide a way to provide wireless coverage to wide areas, across cities or large regions. The types of services range from connecting buildings, like homes and offi ces, and providing them broadband services (high-speed internet etc.) without any type of copper, fi ber or wired infrastructure needed to be in place, as well as mobile applications. It provides the usage that people expect from a cell phone type application with the experience of broadband wherever people may go.
—— A lot of people know and use Wi-Fi, what makes WiMAX different from what everyone is connecting with at Starbucks?
Wi-Fi is a technology designed to provide Ethernet access without the wires. It was originally designed for office applications, and we can see that it has certainly grown beyond that initial vision. Where Wi-Fi was designed to support tens of individuals at Ethernet speeds, WiMAX is designed to reach a much larger area and audience. We have seen Wi-Fi growing well beyond the office, like in Tokyo, Europe and parts of the US, where in a growing number of places you now have citywide access. This is where we see the market demand, the need to have a simple wide area networks without the bounds or confines of a particular building. That is what WiMAX can provide. Where Wi-Fi might provide services to an office, WiMAX applications can provide wireless broadband to areas 30 miles in diameter!
—— So it’s the difference between a local area network (LAN) and a metropolitan area network (MAN)?
Exactly. We try not to get stuck on the M, because you don’t have to be in a dense “metropolitan” area to be able to take advantage of WiMAX. WiMAX isn’t limited to cities and we see it being used to provide wireless access to world communities, in both developed and underdeveloped areas. It is very well suited for that because these communities typically don’t have a large existing broadband infrastructure that’s delivered via copper like DSL or fiber optics. That’s because the customer-base hasn’t been there to be able to generate the revenue to recover that large investment, so providing a wireless connection, like WiMAX, that is built as needed, makes sense. One of the key attributes of wireless is being able to integrate in very fast. So if a customer calls and says we need to have service tomorrow—that is a practical request. It would definitely not be a practical request for DSL or fiber types of service, where the wired infrastructure takes time and money to be built. WiMAX is being developed to support a more rapid build out of services.
—— More and more you are seeing city, state and even country initiatives to go wireless. Are they doing this through technology like WiMAX?
WiMAX, initially, is not going to be the connection that the end-user will be using. Today, we certainly see technologies like Wi-Fi being more pervasive. Wi-Fi is in handsets, laptops, adapters and in those networks Wi-Fi is providing the edge-network connection to the end-user. WiMAX isn’t built in yet, but that is coming. Initially, WiMAX is what might be providing the connection to those Wi-Fi access points, from the top of a building or at the street-level, providing the connection from those Wi-Fi networks back into the operators network.
—— So technologies like WiMAX and Wi-Fi compliment each other?
They are very complimentary. It is very common early on as a new technology emerges to ask, “What is this technology replacing?” or “What advantages does it have?” Initially, WiMAX services will be complimentary, especially when coupled with other wireless technologies like Wi-Fi in offering city-wide connections. It is really no different than at home today; you might have a broadband cable or DSL connection and then use Wi-Fi to wirelessly distribute it. Fixed WiMAX can provide these wide area connections to defined locations, just like DSL or Cable does, while mobile WiMAX is being integrated into the same types of devices Wi-Fi is. Companies like Intel have already announced that they are integrating WiMAX into their Centrino platform, much the same way they did with Wi-Fi. We are seeing it being put into the mobile devices, laptops, PDAs and cell-phones—devices that we bring everywhere. In fact, we are already seeing this technology being commercially implemented in markets like South Korea, where the service is already being driven right down to handsets and smartphones.
—— So WiMAX in handsets means people can take their broadband connection with them wherever they go?
That’s right. Generally, people wirelessly access the internet or LANs today through either Wi-Fi or cell phones. From a usage standpoint, they are different. People usually access Wi-Fi networks with a computer from a fixed location, home or coffee shop, and set up shop there, get the information they need, then close it down and move on. We don’t usually see people walking around town with their laptops in their hands connected to the internet. That is an example of a nomadic application. But now we are seeing a move towards full mobility, where no matter where you are you have broadband access—in a handset. That is the difference between cell phones and laptops now.
—— As WiMAX is built into handsets, how will it impact cellular?
WiMAX is not intended to replace cellular phone technologies and voice services. Those are very well established markets, but WiMAX can be a complimentary service, especially where data transmission is concerned. Customers won’t necessarily know what technology they are using—just that it works. For operators and consumers it’s a way of improving coverage and more effectively using their networks, ensuring that no matter where you are, you can initiate a call and you won’t get busy signals or dropped calls. Beyond that network operators will be able to provide higher levels and quality of service, while supporting greater throughput demands on their networks. The growing trend and demand in cell phone usage is in data transmission, not so much in terms of subscriber growth. Voice minutes on average are going up, but not nearly as rapidly as say 3-5 years ago, while conversely we see services such as text messaging, instant messaging, email access, web access, camera phones and video surging in popularity. The problem is this data is being sent over cellular voice networks that were never designed for that volume of data. WiMAX can alleviate much of that.
—— Tell us a little about the WiMAX Forum.
The WiMAX Forum was formed in June of 2001, and later re-launched with a more specific near-term focus in April of 2003. At that time we only had 8 member companies, but today we have grown to include over 400 member companies and their focus has broadened tremendously, representing the whole ecosystem. Now, over half of our members are service providers and network operators, so this is very much a reflection of where this market is going. We are seeing the process of moving from establishing the technology and packaging it, so that it can become productized, to talking about deployment of services, applications, content, and creating profitable businesses around it—that is where we are at today.
—— How is the WiMAX Forum facilitating this process?
The WiMAX Forum is similar in concept to many other industry trade associations, such as the Wi-Fi Alliance. In our case, the WiMAX Forum is the exclusive organization focused on broadband wireless: standards, testing and services and bringing them to the market place. With so many different players in this area, it becomes necessary to have an industry association where the full-spectrum of the eco-system can come together and rally around a common standard. What that does is speed the adoption of technology at a much faster rate. It can be very interesting because we do bring very strong competitors together. To their credit, our members have, for the most part, put aside their differences and worked together towards this common goal. The result is that they’ve been able to develop a technology that goes beyond where anyone of them individually would have been able to go.
—— So a common WiMAX standard allows for WiMAX Forum certification that ensures interoperability?
Exactly. You want to have that seal of approval and that’s what our certification provides. When you find our logo, you’ll know that the products are going to work together. The WiMAX Forum exists to create the certification process. Even though we have a common technical standard the documents are very long and technical. So we’ve created a profile of specifications that must be included to receive WiMAX Forum certification. You can think of it as a recipe for a certain dish that assures customers that it will have the same quality each time it is made. The WiMAX Forum exists to define and to document what steps need to be taken and then to verify that they have been followed.
—— The potential for WiMAX to revolutionize how we access broadband must be creating a lot of unrest among the establishment.
What you are describing is a disruptive technology, and disruptive has both positive and negative connotations to it. We see WiMAX as disruptive in a positive way, because it continues to challenge the industry to examine how it moves ahead. It is making people take notice. In the cellular phone type of market place the road maps for those technologies have really slowed down and matured. People have been talking about 3G and the vision for a coming 4G, but it is has been so nebulous that no one can define it. WiMAX has forced the issue within both the networking and computing industries. That has certainly caused alarm within some of the traditional telecommunications companies, because of their large investment in cellular voice technology. There are always going to be contrarian views and I think that is a very healthy. Naturally, when a company has a technology that they generate substantial revenue on, they are going to want to defend that as long as they can. I do think it is important to note that no single company has a dominant position in ownership of WiMAX technology. It is an open technology, based on standards, with opportunities for many new entrants to generate revenue throughout the entire eco-system. This is especially true in the greenfield markets, where broadband or cell phone services either don’t exist yet or are underserved. In those markets WiMAX technology is absolutely competitive and we can demonstrate its advantages as to why it is the better investment.
—— Could you tell me just a little about KDDI’s take on WiMAX?
I think the idea is that WiMAX is not going to jump in and just replace something overnight. It offers new opportunities. One of the challenges facing cellular operators, 3G operators, is generating revenue. They have invested so much and they need to be able to benefit from new applications, new services, new subscriber bases and that has been very challenging. To provide more service you need more spectrum. Well, WiMAX technologies allow them to provide broadband technologies in a mobile package and KDDI among others recognize that.
Spectrum is available and the trend in most regions is for the opening up of availability. In Japan this is also true, so operators are looking at how they can best utilize that to provide more and varied services and to be able to assign value and generate revenue from those new or differentiated services.
—— Where is WiMAX at today?
It’s interesting because many of the early participants in the WiMAX Forum had been focused on developing the technology to design and develop products. Now that we’ve got this broad base of service providers and operators, the most interest we see in new member companies is in content: consumer applications, consumer electronics devices and all aspects of entertainment. Now that we’ve created the platform, the question for them is how can they push video services and new content. Some are new content providers, while others are existing content providers who want to learn to make their content function on this platform while seeing what advantages it offers to enable them to raise the bar!
—— And what about WiMAX products and services coming to market?
We are already seeing WiMAX Forum certified products. In fact, today we have around 23 different certified radios for fixed and stationary applications bringing connections to defined locations. Mobile WiMAX certification is just about to begin. Also, as I previously mentioned we are already seeing early deployments in Korea and that includes mobile WiMAX. Later, in the beginning of 2007, we’ll start certifying those mobile devices. So it is not a question of if mobile WiMAX is coming, we’re already seeing it demonstrated in markets like South Korea. South Korea is so committed that they are moving ahead before certification and you can see those services under the WiBro name. Certainly they’ll all gain certification because they have been designed with the standards in mind—but the market can’t wait! There is already a demand in the market for these products and services.
Throughout 2006 you will continue seeing the deployment of WiMAX Forum certified systems that provide broadband access to individuals, homes and to tens of hundreds of people within enterprise environments. That is where revenue is being generated, as well as, supporting the backhaul for various city-wide Wi-Fi deployments. That is very much the focus of companies that are deploying services today. So WiMAX is there, but not in the spotlight, so people probably won’t be aware of WiMAX services just yet. More recognizable products will come later, because there has to be a network first. That way when someone purchases a mobile WiMAX enabled laptop or handheld device, they’ll turn it on and instantly become a member of the service.
We certainly see this coming and device manufacturers are making the jump to a high level of integration by embedding WiMAX in their systems today! Another point in mobile WiMAX’s favor is that it operates in a similar frequency band to what cell phone service operates in. As a result the type and distance of coverage that a base station for mobile WiMAX provides is very similar to those of cell phone stations allowing for easier migration to WiMAX. Companies won’t have to acquire new sites — they’ll already have a similar coverage pattern or better and without the need to increase the density of their base stations.
—— So that makes for a smooth transition to WiMAX handsets for operators and users.
Exactly. In an application context…if I have a smartphone or PDA and I request video content for sports, weather or traffic, I can request the service to send me the latest headlines. The video will then stream in real-time to that device. That may not be optimal on a voice network, and the network operator can now intelligently select to route that request over the most optimal network, internet, WiMAX or voice, to provide the best experience and manage their network. Consumers will see that change in the sense of having handsets with increased functionality and that support multiple modes. The same way today that handsets for cellular services support different frequency bands and can roam across service providers within a country or roam internationally with different bands. The same type of inter-workings will occur within WiMAX and this goes along with being a very complimentary component. To be truly complimentary they need to be able to communicate with each other so the user pattern doesn’t change.
—— Is the power of WiMAX going to change how we use our cell phones or handsets?
Yes, definitely. It brings a new breed of application to concept. I mentioned S. Korea before and how they are looking at rolling out these new services. One is similar to the Sprint-Nextel 2-way radio system where you can communicate in real time on a parallel radio system, but with much more throughput, so you could share simultaneously text, images and video. An example might be while I say or text, “The weather is great today in San Diego,” I could be sending a real-time video showing the weather with my handset. That type of use and the traffic that it creates on a network is unlike anything today, because now you are creating dynamic real-time need for multimedia. I cannot predict when that is going to happen, but this is not something you are going to be able to get over a voice network. It’s something that can be achieved by utilizing the Internet and the capabilities that it has and WiMAX allows for that. There is always the initial or emotional response of “ Why do we need a faster computer? or “How fast is good enough?” It’s really just a natural progression, and there is a huge interest today in developing new applications and content optimized for WiMAX mobile broadband
(11-6-2006 issue, Interview by Terry Nicholas)